We asked Clinical Psychologist, Dr Emma Hepburn, to share her advice on how to help little ones feel calm, confident and in control when they start big school or nursery.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
Find out as much information as you can beforehand, so you can help settle and orientate your child. Can you share pictures of their classroom and teachers? Can you let them know what the lunch routine is? Are there videos you can watch? Doing the school journey together beforehand to go and look at the school can help open up conversation and questions. Make sure you use any material the school has given to help you prepare too.
Help them feel prepared
Involving your child in preparation can be fun for them and also help them feel in control. You could have a special trip to choose their uniform/bag/water bottle/lunch items etc. Pack their bag or make their lunch together the day before. Lay out their uniform/ clothes the night before. Make this as fun as possible, for example set out their clothes with a cuddly toy popping out. Getting them involved can create positive association with school and also help them feel prepared.
Chat about starting school
What are they looking forward to? Is there anything they are worried about? You could look at photos from your early school days to open up conversation around starting school. Story books can also be a very helpful way to introduce the idea of going to school/ nursery and help children prepare mentally. They can also be a conversation starter and open up questions from your child.
Try to develop a good bedtime and morning routine
Routine is calming for children and a good nights sleep, a settled morning and a healthy breakfast helps everyone cope better. Make sure there is time for connection in your night-time routine, for example through a bedtime story or bath time. Prepare the night before to help make the morning calmer - e.g. lay out the uniform (and perhaps your clothes too!), pack the bags, prepare the snacks and lay out the cereal bowls. The less stressed everyone can be in the morning the better! But also don’t beat yourself up if things do get frantic - that’s perfectly normal!
Establish routines a few days before you start
It’s okay if routines have slipped during the holiday. By establishing these prior to school going back, you can minimise the changes that are happening at one time and create a settling routine prior to school.
Prepare for after school/nursery too!
The time after school or nursery can be hard for parents and children as tiredness sets in and emotions rise. Having a settling routine after school can be helpful for everyone. This could include a snack, and activity and some time together. However also prepare yourself for how you can respond calmly to raised emotions, that often occur at these times.
Have your own back to school (and first week of school) checklist
It’s a hectic and stressful time for parents, so keep a checklist and reminder for yourself of the things you need to do and when, to reduce your own stress.
Plan feelgood activities
Speak to children about what they enjoy doing and what makes them feel good. Plan some simple fun activities with your children for during the week, so that children have something to look forward to. It can also be nice to plan a fun activity you will do together after the first day of school.
Practise tasks that are new to them beforehand
Such as getting their uniform and gym kit on and off. Putting their shoes on and off and in their bag and how to open their lunch box and water bottle. The more tasks they feel confident doing, the less there is for them to worry about.
Focus on the things they enjoy
Talk about the positive aspects of school they will enjoy, such as seeing their friends, games they enjoy and lessons and school activities they like. Ask them what they are looking forward to about going to school. You could draw this or weave the question into when you are reading books. This can help children focus on and remember these positive aspects.
Try to model calmness
Children learn from behaviours. Showing them you are calm and confident about them starting school (even if you are feeling wobbly inside, which is okay!) guides how they will respond to the situation too. Make sure you are feeling calm before you talk to your child about starting school. Plan for how you will manage the drop off to help you stay calm (even if this means having a cry after you’ve dropped them off which is perfectly okay).
Create an invisible connection
Some parents find it helpful to create an invisible connection to remind their child they are thinking of them. Examples of this are a little note or item to remind them of you in their bag or lunchbox. Another example is the heart or hug button which has been widely shared on social media. Both parent and child draw a heart on their hand and if the child is missing their parents the can feel connected by pressing their “hug” button.
Prepare how you will respond when you part
Try to validate how they feel, model calmness and remind them you will be back. Use any techniques that help you feel calm too, like slow breathing.
Spend time with them
If you can, try to allocate some individual time playing or doing activities chosen by your children in the run up to and first weeks of school (but ideally on a regular basis). This helps children feel safe and secure and it is often at these times you will pick up on worries or they will start to speak about things.
Help them prepare for challenges.
Problem solve how children can manage their worries. You can do this for specific worries children are expressing, such as not having a friend to play with at break time. You can also do this for more general worries e.g. what they can do or who they can you speak to at school if they are worried, or uncertain about what to do. You can also help them prepare practically, for example by thinking about how they can ask for help when they are unsure, or even how to ask to go to the toilet.
Help develop coping strategies to regulate their emotions
You can practise calming activities and relaxation at home by making this as fun as possible. Relaxation activities can also be a helpful part of a bedtime routine. There are lots of good ideas on this website: https://copingskillsforkids.com/calming-anxiety
Cosmic Kids Yoga is also a great option for yoga and relaxation ideas.
Look after yourself
Being kind and compassionate to yourself and looking after your own needs is essential. Speak through any concerns with the school or nursery and make sure you are responding to these together in a consistent way. Talk through your own worries with people you trust. This may also be stressful time for you so ensure you look after your own wellbeing as much as you can. This is essential for you and to help your child.
You can find more of Dr Emma Hepburn’s advice @thepsychologymum on Instagram